In these times of widespread social violence, a devastated city, & devastated lives - an honest public dialogue, conversation without selling an agenda, is all the more important. That is just what happened on October 17th of this year, thanks to the Communication Department of Xavier University of New Orleans.
The event took place in the cavernous ballroom on campus, five people in a row on a panel, moderator at the side by a podium, numerous seats pointed towards them. Presented with the title of "Media, Communication, and Community: Private & Public Interests in Rebuilding New Orleans", this dialogue was moderated by Bruce France, a former public-speaking professor of Xavier University and a co-founder & co-artistic director of the local art company Mondo Bizarro. France began with a few remarks of his own, one of which was a question which he used to present to his students at Xavier:
"Are you paying attention to the world around you, or are you paying attention to what is going on for you?"
He then answered this question, for himself: "I can barely be paying attention to any of this stuff (world events). Why? Because I live in New Orleans." He then remarked on how "more people die per capita here in New Orleans than in Baghdad," and on some other challenges the city faces, and thus, the discussion began.
This dialogue consisted of a panel of five people, and the audience at large. The panel was comprised of: Bart Everson, a local activist & blogger and multimedia artist for Xavier's Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Nick Sile, a co-founder and co-artistic director of Mondo Bizarro and director of Theater Studies at Nunez Community College. Jarvis DeBerry, a writer for the local newspaper Times Picayune. Rebecca Snedeker, a documentary filmmaker and director of the film "By Invitation Only". And Sakura Kone, the Media Coordinator for Common Ground Relief.
Bart Everson spoke first: "Different demographics in this city are impacted in different ways. Middle-class, home-owners, whites - have the easiest time in coming back. Working-class, renters, blacks - have a harder time in coming back." He quoted the author Naomi Klein in her new book, "Disaster Capitalism", in regards to how disasters used to be a great social leveller, and now they have the opposite effect - leading to more stratification.
Nick Slie spoke next: "If we want to live in a different way, act in a different way, to exist in a different way, then what are we offering that is different? How do we come together to address how we share resources together?" He spoke of a philosophy of mutual aid that he believes in: "We try to say: 'if we are partnering with you, you will have the full weight of what we have, for better & worse.'"
Jarvis DeBerry then spoke: "Usually when people think of a ravaged New Orleans, what they are thinking of is the results of the free market." He added that "when I think of the free market, I usually think of corporations displacing people. But sometimes it means that nobody comes at all."
Rebecca Snedeker then spoke: "There is the important question of: 'who are we, what is our history, and how do we see ourselves?' ... when we are in this time of chaotic change, we need some beautiful images of ourselves." She ended her remarks with "the ability to absorb stories and to be inspired by them can be a valuable way for us to move forward."
Finishing the panel statements was Sakura Kone: "New Orleans was once the place with the highest rate of slave rebellions, now it is fast becoming the suicide capitol of the world ... It is incumbent upon us to not allow the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans to occur. Because if that happens, then the flood-gates would then be open, and no place will be safe." When he spoke of his coming out from California to volunteer in New Orleans, he said, "Confronted with the spirit of the people and their will to survive, I found that I could not turn my back on the situation out here."
After that, the floor was opened up to audience participation. The audience was mostly comprised of young students from Xavier University, Xavier being the country's only both black & Catholic University. The first to speak directed a question to the panel:
"How do we not become discouraged and just...leave?"
Jarvis DeBerry gave a thorough response: "Keep in mind that no other American city has ever had to deal with having 80% of the city being under water, first figure out how to rescue people, then figure out how to pump out the water, then figure
out how to rebuild. ... I think that all of us are torn between patience & impatience. ... But we need to figure out how to do something that has never been done before."
After that, the group conversation traveled to a number of different areas. Some of these included such topics as...
Collaboration, to which Bart Everson said "For just about every particular aspect of recovery, there is some organization that exists to address it." And Nick Slie said: "The big question is one of processes - how do we work together?"
Artistic expression, to which Rebecca Snedeker said, "To see some ripple effect of some project of yours, gives you the energy needed to ask for support for another project." And Nick Slie said: "How can we have a cultural economy here in this city, where we are not investing in the cultural production, but are reliant upon the marketing of culture?"
The plight of home-owners, to which Sakura Kone said, "The city passes ordinances to punish property owners who are struggling with insurance companies playing word games." and Jarvis DeBerry commented "Everybody is afraid of their property being taken away, but we can't have the alternative being nothing being done."
At one point, an audience member asked: "What are we going to be doing in the future, when we don't have people in New Orleans running things in New Orleans, because they are not educated?"
The general sentiment that was the closest to "answers" to all of the problems addressed, was two-fold:
There was the call for more discussion. To quote Jarvis DeBerry: "We need to have conversations where we ask: 'How can we build a city that works for everyone?'" An audience member said: "Just sit down and listen to someone, because everyone just wants a good ear."
And there was an explicit can-do attitude. To quote Sakura Kone: "You are only as limited as your imagination." And paraphrasing Gandhi, "Be the change that you advocate."